Egypt: What went wrong in the January revolution?

Published February 1st, 2016 - 12:42 GMT
Egyptians wave the national flag in Cairo's Tahrir Square during a rally marking the anniversary of the 2011 Arab Spring uprising on January 25, 2014. (AFP/Virginie Nguyen Hoang)
Egyptians wave the national flag in Cairo's Tahrir Square during a rally marking the anniversary of the 2011 Arab Spring uprising on January 25, 2014. (AFP/Virginie Nguyen Hoang)

What has happened in the five years since the 25 January Revolution? This is a question that has been raised by many, with many others believing they have the answer to it.

Some, who are mostly supporting and jealously protecting the revolution, raise questions like: Why has the January Revolution stumbled and not achieved its objectives? Or perhaps in a more pessimistic tone, ask: why is the country in a worse state today than it was before?

Some say the answer to this question is that the revolution was a conspiracy against the country aimed at putting the Muslim Brotherhood in power. They say that whatever the criticisms are of the existing situation, the Brotherhood remaining in power would have been a worse path, and the price paid by society as a result of overthrowing the Brotherhood is tolerable compared to having them stay in power.

A third strain of thought believes the fault lies in the revolution itself, and that Egypt, after ridding itself of the revolutionary discourse, is in a better situation than that which followed the revolution.

The true question is, how did the revolution go from a state of having its discourse control the public and political space and being courted by the Brotherhood, the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) and the old regime's pillars, to being put in a defensive position and facing an endless sea of accusations?

The January Revolution... The real energy and lost opportunities

Five years have passed since the revolution, and many opportunities were lost that could have put Egypt on the democratic path, economic development and political reform. Everyone has withdrawn from the greatest and purest event in Egypt's modern history; where millions took to the streets in the country's many squares asking for freedom, justice and human dignity.

The people were not sitting in their homes or struggling through electronic sites when they demanded Mubarak's ouster. They had broken the fear barrier and took to the streets at a time when the police state was at its zenith of influence and said "NO" in the face of an unjust ruler.

The truth is that the lost opportunity started when Mubarak stepped down on 11 February, when the Egyptian youth cleaned Tahrir Square in a sight that was expressive and unprecedented in the history of popular uprisings worldwide, declaring an end to protest activities and the beginning of the building stage. As such, the true energy of the January Revolution was reformational in nature, and stopped with Mubarak stepping down and the blocking of the succession of his son.

The truth is that Egypt was prepared on 12 February to step into its current situation; an alternative emerging from within the existing state but outside the Mubarak family. The masses were ready to accept men like Amr Moussa, Kamal El-Ganzoury, Ahmed Shafiq, the late Omar Suleiman, or even Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi,if he were the Defence Minister at the time, to succeed Mubarak.

The truth is that the January energy stopped at the popular uprising that drove the state to reform and terminate the succession project. This is what the great majority of the January Revolution's participants expressed when they left the squares after Mubarak stepped down and chanted "The Army and the People are one hand." That was because they had confidence in their national army regardless of any mistakes committed by the SCAF afterwards.

Post January faults

There are many writings that say the Arab Spring failed because of the revolutions themselves, forgetting to a great extent the responsibility bore by the existing political regimes or the nature of the path the revolutions have gone through.

The militarisation of the Syrian Revolution and the country becoming a captive of the Daesh extremist organisation, Iranian militias and Hezbollah, is attributed – in part – to the tyrannical and sectarian regime in Syria.

The success of the Tunisian experience is a result to the post-revolution path taken, which was, on the theoretical level, a sound one. The constitution was written first and the main political parties reached a consensus concerning a legal system before entering into political competition and conflict.

Egypt's problem lies in the confused path taken following the revolution's success in overthrowing Mubarak's rule.

The revolutionary coalitions adopted the slogan "revolutionary millions rally," filling the streets and squares while alienating a great deal of Egyptians due the perceived state of chaos associated with the protests, and putting the square in a confrontation with the street.

A wide section of Egyptians saw that regaining stability and ordinary life was more desirable than the chaos that came to be linked to the revolution, where revolutionary youth showed creative abilities in protests but not generating any alternative.

Moreover, all the symbols of the civil elite participating in the January Revolution failed in presenting an integrated political alternative or project. This project would have been carried by a coalition or political currents concentrated on a symbol or a leader – one which carries a political project that had consensus – embodying the revolution's principles and working on achieving its objectives. Failing to do so has wasted opportunities for transforming the revolutionary protest energy into an alternative capable of achievement.

At the same time, the SCAF, which took the burden of managing the country subsequent to Mubarak's stepping down, is to blame for many mistakes. The most significant of those mistakes was not putting constitutional and legal rules organising the political process and a political path consistent with the revolution's aims. Instead, they should have amended and implemented the 1971 constitution until a new one was issued.

Unfortunately, what happened was that the 1971 Constitution, the Egyptian civil state's constitution, was abolished in submission to the scream of some people, forgetting that 77 percent of the people agreed on amending this constitution. The SCAF issued a pale constitutional declaration blasting a main pillar of the Egyptian state represented in its civil constitution.

This transitional administration undertook a most difficult endeavour, that is siding with the people's demand that Mubarak step down without having this decision affect the cohesion of the military, then handing over power to an elected Muslim Brotherhood president.

It is true that the SCAF did not try to keep power for itself and did not conspire to this end as some like to believe, but it was also not keen to lay down any legal and constitutional rules governing the political process before handing over power to the Brotherhood. Amending the 1971 Constitution or writing a new one, issuing a fair electoral law and legalising the Brotherhood's status were all preconditions for the success of the political process.

Was it a revolution against "no regime"?

Did the Egyptian people start a revolution against "no regime", i.e. that Mubarak's "regime" was characterised with chaos and randomness and consequently Egypt was in need to enter an immediate reformational path for building and reforming institutions?

When looking at the aftermath of revolutions seen in Eastern Europe, Latin America and Asia when democratisation was starting in the 1990s, we see countries characterised with totalitarianism and an absence of democracy.

At the same time, these countries were strong and capable in the fields of industry, education and scientific research. All this we did not witness in Mubarak's Egypt, where anarchy ran rampant and the state institutions' performance deteriorated.

What happened after 25 January was more anarchy.

Some revolutionary currents linked the revolution's noble objectives with protest and calls for destruction, disintegration and overthrow. They conveyed a mistaken image to the ordinary citizen that the revolution only means protest, demonstrating and violence. Thus, a wide section of the people supporting and backing the revolution left and went their separate ways until its foes made off with it.

The lost opportunities started when many failed to understand that overthrowing Mubarak on 11 February should not be a path for overthrowing the state, and that our mission after this should be supremely reformational.

A constitution needed to be amended until we write a new one, with laws changed and politicians taking the lead. However, the senile Mubarak regime, unable to fill the vacuum, opened the door wide for protest forces to grow, develop and everyday disintegrate one of the state's pillars. The protest forces have done so without presenting any alternative for filling the vacuum following Mubarak's ouster – it presumed that it was victorious and the reality was that it had lost a lot.

The Muslim Brotherhood stood with their group, waiting for an opportunity to swoop in and seize power. That is what they did when they ruled the country without a constitution, without fair electoral laws and no legalised group. This was after the lost opportunity of laying down the conditions for the safe integration of Islamist currents, with a strict legal system that accepts a religious political party separate from any specific religious group.

The opportunity of the revolution was lost; it was no longer a means to build a better future, but was rather its own purpose and objective.

January's reformational objectives

Not a single successful experience of change during the last half-century, whether in Eastern Europe, Asia or Latin America, adopted terms like "purge" and "revolutionary courts" or other terms used by the revolutionary forces and the Muslim Brotherhood.

It is true that despotic experiences saw similar terms used, whether during the Communist Revolution in Russia in 1917 or in the despotic Arab experiences of Libya's Muammar Gaddafi, Baathism or Marxism (in South Yemen the class struggle was transformed into a tribal one in which tens of thousands of victims fell).

However, all those regimes repressed their peoples and imprisoned or killed their political foes under the pretext of protecting the revolution, revolutionary legitimacy and confronting counter-revolutionary forces.

Sadly, some are still keen to restart the film from its beginning, echoing Afghanistan and Sudan, which lived through failed experiences under the cover of religion, and some others are searching for a revolutionary regime that repeats another failed experience. Their starting point reflects where Stalin, Saddam Hussein, Gaddafi, and Bashar Al-Assad began, and all the regimes that fortified their despotism under the name of revolutionary legitimacy.

A revolution is an exceptional event that the people turn to when they feel oppression and marginalisation, and afterwards its mission becomes building democracy, a state of justice and order, not a state of revolution and exceptional laws. So it is no surprise that the world saw in the last half-century new experiences and vocabulary such as "transitional justice" instead of "revolutionary courts" and democratic regimes and the state of law, instead of the revolutionary state.

It is surprising that the Muslim Brotherhood, moderates and extremist militants put on the revolutionary dress, seeking revenge from the state and political foes and repeating the experiences of failure and despotism. Every day, the Brotherhood repeats that deposing them from power was due to them not being revolutionary and not executing their foes and old regime figures in the squares.

What is certain is that this has not been the demand of millions who took to the streets, who at no point called for a revolutionary regime. They rather called for a regime that defends the January Revolution's values and principles and considers the revolution a means, not an end in itself, for building a democratic political system and achieving economic and social progress.

What is needed is to reclaim the January Revolution's values and principles, away from the fancies and interests of all the political factions.

Those who achieve power become reformational, but when they return to the opposition they rediscover their revolutionary side. Respecting the law becomes the core of their principles and objectives.

The problem essentially does not lie in the old regime figures but in the old system that produced and protected those figures. Egypt will not progress except when this system is changed with democracy, justice, and the rule of law. These are the January Revolution's objectives, which have not yet been achieved.

The alternative that Egypt is waiting for is a reformational, democratic and civil alternative that abides by the revolution's values and principles, not a revolutionary figure that fortifies his policies and authoritarianism in the name of the revolution, or grants himself exceptional rights because he is a revolutionary and accuses those opposing his views – even those in his own faction – of being traitors.

The needed alternative should act towards reforming the state's institutions, not destroying them or exacting revenge on them, and working on realising democracy and a state of laws. This was the real goal of the January Revolution, a goal which has not yet been reached.

The writer is a political analyst in Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies and a former MP.

This article was originally published in Democracy Review Quarterly, a publication of Al-Ahram Foundation.

By Amr El Shobaki

© Copyright Al-Ahram Publishing House

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